Archive for Time

Puff Time

Posted in Natural World, Time, Uncategorized with tags , on November 25, 2009 by madvice

Dear Madvice,

I was recently on a walk with my little son, Tom, and I was showing him how to tell the time using dandelion clocks.  The problem was that we kept getting the wrong time, our attempts ranging from 3 o’clock (me) to 14 o’clock (Tom) whereas it was actually 2 o’clock in the afternoon.  We were both very disappointed, as dandelion time is so obviously natural and organic that I’d like to use it all the time.  So what is the secret to getting it accurate?  And what do they do on the continent with the 24-hour clock? Please help, I’m getting desperate!

Marcus and Tom, Little Buckingham.

Dear Marcus,

An interesting problem, and one I can help with: I am skilled with dandelion clocks, to the extent that I keep a pristine puffball by my bed for use as an alarm clock, and it never lets me down. 

The dandelion is an interesting plant. First discovered by weed researchers in 1648, it is a flowering rizome of the genus Horodendritica, those that shed or lose their skins according to the hour of the day (within the animal world, their nearest relative are the snake family, serpentus, which lose their skin once a year – hence their significance in many ancient civilisations, where they were used as calendars).

In Britain, the common dandelion, Horodendritica nuisancesis, is a welcome visitor to summer lawns, much prized by gardeners, which encourages many wild species, such as moles, pigeons, and toileting cats, to visit.

But be careful – as the plant is now rare in our grasslands, one should only pick them sparingly, and then only sickly-looking specimens, and not breeding females – however, if you are lucky enough to find a large patch, a short time-finding visit is unlikely to do to much damage.  Interestingly, there is still one mystery about the dandelion – how do they change from floppy, flaxen flowers to snow-white horological marvels? Despite many studies, researchers are baffled, knowing only that the change occurs when no one is looking….

Ten past three, or ten to five?

Now, a ripe dandelion head has 2706 seeds. Its unique properties as a timepiece derive from the cyclical delivery of the stickiness enzyme, prittase, which keep the seeds anchored more or less-strongly to the plant and make them progressively harder to dislodge as the morning progresses, peaking at noon, followed by a sudden relaxation towards one o’clock, the favoured breeding time for the plant.

Incidentally, you ask about the “continental” 24-hour clock.  The truth here is that foreigners lack the blow of native Britains, and allied to their desire to show off with larger numbers, do not manage the diurnal recalibration required.  (If you must, you can pretend to be European by simply adding 12 to any time after noon.  For similar reasons, American time does not go beyond 6).

Of course, it is not always a simple matter to dislodge the seedy parachutes at exactly the right rate to take advantage of this chronological retention gradient, so practice and dedication will be necessary at first.  For this reason, I do not advise that you abandon all clocks and watches initially, only once you have reliably mastered the art of dandelion puffing, after which they will be unnecessary. But rest assured, once you know the trick, you and your family will never need to use conventional clocks again.

So, training.  First, watch how nature does it. Take an ethically sourced, ripe seedhead and a hair dryer (you could use natural wind, but this is vital to counteract global warming and for use in wind farms, so better to conserve it) and do a series of experiments.  Calibrate the air source first by noting how many 5-second blasts of air (the cool setting is preferable) it takes to denude the plant, plot them on a graph against the “normal” time, while varying the distance from the nozzle until you have a reliable source of puff (and, it should be said, a true bio-clock to impress your friends with!).  All you now have to do is to regulate your own breaths to that of the hair-dryer, and you are set to go.

Obviously this is not quite all, and it will take some months of daily practice before you can perform in all weather conditions, with slightly damaged plants, and after severe exercise, but one morning you will awake, and before you even realise what you are doing, will have puffed seven times on your bedside bloom and be up and showering, all without your alarm clock.

You will then be ready to teach your son how to do it.

Now, small children are really stupid, so be ready for this to take a little time – maybe 8 or so puff hours.  At first, try in the morning.  Kids have little experience in breathing out, and are rather feeble, so the stickier seeds of 10 or 11 will be good practice; once he has got the feel for it then go for the “easier” afternoon hours, reinforcing success with a kind word and a sweet, and failure with a curse and a sharp, painful blow – if your national laws permit.

And then, one day, you will stroll out on a sunlit meadow, hand in hand, wonder what the time is, and he will pick a perfect, dazzling white dandelion head, purse his lips, blow, and tell you.

And what a moment that will be!

And now, puff, puff, puff, it’s just past 3 here, so I must leave – there’s a train I have to get in 30 minutes.  Good luck, and happy time blowing!